My first Steely Dan show happened within an hour of my first lap dance. It was in Las Vegas, and my friend Deane Chadburn—then the proprietor of the now-shuttered Recycle CD across from Sears and Burt's Tiki Lounge on 800 South and State—facilitated both events. A massive fan, Deane had planned a weeklong jaunt, hitting every date of Steely Dan's "Rent Party" shows in L.A., and one in Vegas. The tickets were $240, and Deane gave me one.
I hadn't loved them my whole life; for me, Steely Dan was an acquired taste. I first heard them on Rock 103.5 (now The Arrow) when I was 10. That's way too young for Steely Dan. I mean, if you're that age and you dig 'em—for the reasons they deserve to be dug—then good for you, kid. But I wasn't ready.
The band just wasn't age-appropriate. There's a reason kids only want to eat candy when they're young: It tastes good. They don't want complexity, a symphony of flavors to parse and savor. Steely Dan was a wasabi Kit-Kat, and I could only handle Hershey's. They gave me pianos, horns and jazz chords when I wanted loud guitars, big choruses, simple lyrics: "Back in black/ I hit the sack."
That's the stuff. Not this shit about some guy so worried about Rikki losin' his digits. I didn't care about old-ass Aretha Franklin, and I had no idea why Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian made tonight a wonderful thing. These damned songs by the nerdily named Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were interrupting morning show host Jon Carter's super-funny "Timmy" sketches. Even the revelation that the band was named for a dildo mentioned in a book called Naked Lunch failed to pique my pre-pubescent puerility.
It's hard to pinpoint the moment when my head popped outta my butt and I really heard Steely Dan. There is no landmark event in my physical or emotional development, no single epiphany. It was gradual.
I like to think I picked up on the vibe, first—that laid-back feel that belies the music's degree of difficulty and genius. It suffuses even the peppier Dan songs, like the mile-a-minute, be-bopping "Bodhisattva," or the freewheeling "Reelin' in the Years," but is most apparent in tunes like the slinky "Hey Nineteen." It's the sound of cool.
As I grew older, and experienced life, the songs revealed themselves to me. When I'd figured out why I should care about 'Retha, I understood why the protagonist of "Hey Nineteen" was dismayed by the ignorance of the 19-year-old object of his lust. I felt the sad smile behind the "Deacon Blues" line, "They got a name for all the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose."
And then I saw how the music and the words dovetailed to give depth and personality to the songs. Like in "Cousin Dupree," where the loping backbeat and Becker's simple, funky guitar—even without the lyrics—evokes the image of an idle D-bag with designs on "a downhome family romance." Or how, on "Do It Again," shakers, conga drums, a Yamaha organ and a sitar can link seemingly disparate verses about revenge, regret and desperation. And somehow, Fagen's stoned-but-soulful voice suits these losers and antiheroes who try to win by losing, indulge base urges, bang a sweet young (unrelated) thing, connect with someone, divorce another, contemplate one's obsolescence or go gunnin' for the man who stole their water.
Steely Dan mixes a wicked intellect and sense of humor, balancing serious points with plain goofiness. Each listen, whether it's a song on the radio or an album side, rewards you with something to think about long after the needle scrapes the label. That's why, that night in Vegas, the crowd stood through the entire show and why we all, eventually, listen so attentively to Steely Dan—and, at least in my case, don't recall much about that lap dance.